Biblical reflection on church planting, unsurprisingly, concentrates on the book of Acts. Harry Weatherley admits: “we will not find a blueprint for church planting in the Acts of the Apostles, but we will find some guiding principles.” These include cycles of growth and the importance of local leadership for the communities (chs.2-9; 10-11 [esp.11:21]; 12-14 [esp.14:22-23]; 15-16; 17-19). Each of these phases resulted in new plants as a result of missionary activity.
Martin Robinson and Stuart Christine who were two of the early church planting authors in Britain give a good biblical and theological context to the discipline by showing what was happening as the early Jewish church suddenly had to make space for Gentile believers: “For Paul, his work among the Gentiles is much more than just the exploration of a new and potentially vast mission field, it is the means by which the very purpose of God can be worked out for the people of Israel themselves.”
So the establishment of these new communities was not just the way of bringing in more before the end times but actually “part of the process by which the end times would be fulfilled”. They go on to assert: “The establishing of churches among the Gentiles is, therefore, an inseparable part of the plan and purpose of God for his world. Church planting is not an optional extra for Christians, it is an intrinsic expression of the redemptive action of God in his world.”
While church planting does have these eschatological and redemptive dimensions, most basically it is an expression of the communal implications of the gospel. Reflecting on Acts 13:1-14:23 another British planter Graham Beynon writes: “The task of evangelization and seeing people converted doesn’t result in individual believers but the gathering of those believers into new churches… Spreading the Gospel message should result in churches being planted.” He also notes that, in the New Testament: “a church is known much more for its functions than its form. Hence when thinking about church planting we must not necessarily think of replicating what we know of as a church… rather we can think very flexibly of any group committed to praying, learning, and growing together.”
This caution against cloning became a familiar refrain throughout much of the later literature. Steve Timmis writes: “Too many assumptions are carried into the plant, so that church planting all too easily degenerates into church cloning”. Anglican bishop Graham Cray similarly: “One in ten of the Church of England’s church plants has failed, the major reason being that they were not plants but clones.” This danger had been flagged up as early as 1992 by Robinson and Christine:
“All too often what is planted is actually a replication of older failed structures… It would seem to us to be largely pointless to plant yet more churches of the type that have already failed if we are to come to grips with the missionary context in which we are working… How is it that we have arrived at a situation which is so serious that even though we have some 45,000 congregations in Britain, we have to think in terms of planting yet more congregations in order to produce missionary congregations?”
In all of the literature, one of the strongest criticisms of cloning comes from Michael Moynagh:
“Instead of molding the plant around the people it was designed to attract, newcomers have been expected to fit into a model that suited the Christians setting it up. The core either copied what they already had or sought to create what was missing from their home “church”. The new congregation was not built with, let alone by the people it was seeking to reach: it was designed for them. And very often the design did not fit.”
Aubrey Malphurs, author of a very influential planting guide in the United States, defines church planting as “a planned process of beginning and growing new local churches.” While this was a clear apostolic strategy and activity throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament period in general, Murray warns that “there is a tendency to idealize first century churches in a way that might astound, amuse, or outrage a time-traveling Peter or Paul.”
The challenge for contemporary planters is not to replicate the early churches in all aspects of their life and witness, which was just as messy, complex, and sin-infected as today’s Christian communities, but to recapture the apostolic understanding of the church’s identity and centrality to the purposes of God in history.